"What do you do with the mad you feel?" That's the question Mister Rogers - perhaps the embodiment of the idea of not getting mad - famously asked in a song he read aloud at the congressional committee hearing in which he convinced a skeptical audience to continue funding public television. Christianity seems to have two public faces: God as love ... and God as the angry judge. Sometimes people break this down into the "Angry, Vengeful Old Testament God" and the "Loving Jesus of the New Testament", but Jesus, as much as he taught us to love one another, was not shy about being angry. The most notable incident is the Cleansing of the Temple, in which Jesus does a literal table flip - yes! - as part of trying to re-sanctify the Temple for worship, rather than commerce. "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Anger, according to many emotion theorists from antiquity to the modern day, is the unconditioned response to being restrained in animals - and the reaction against the violation of a norm in human beings. We get angry when we feel unfree, and more angry when we think that unfreedom is unjust. Jesus's anger is generally what we might call righteous anger: outrage at violation of religious norms - the desecration of the Temple by selling animals for sacrifice is one example, part of Jesus's anger elsewhere at people who put up barriers, like complex rules, between others and God. Other things that warrant a rebuke from Jesus include hypocrisy, mistreating children, or turning to the law to solve problems that could be solved by talking honestly. Jesus also rebukes demons, the wind, even a fig tree - though that last may have been a physical metaphor for the Temple. But - BUT - this is Jesus, who taught with authority, because He was sent by God, as the Son of God, who is God. So He had the authority to pronounce judgment on God's law - and as much as I think we should emulate His style of thinking, our decisions, no matter how good, do not have Jesus's authority. Fortunately, even though He asks us to follow him, and He gets angry, He also gives us an out by telling us: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." Forgiveness is what Jesus preaches, and the way He wants us to live. As we mentioned earlier, this even extends to evangelism: "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." Jesus does not force anyone to follow. This ultimately comes back to the Golden Rule: "Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets." This rule appears many, many times in the Old and New Testaments. It's almost like it's important. Jesus sums this up various times, but one of the most striking is a summary He elicits from a young lawyer seeking the path to eternal life: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself." Love is a complex emotion, a suitcase word with many meanings. Romantic love alone is broken up into at least attraction, infatuation, and long-term attachment, each with its own formal characteristics, brain areas, neurotransmitters, and time profiles. But God's love is selfless love, the word agape in the Greek, perhaps embodied best in the famous "Christianity in One Sentence" verse, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." The reason that God shows both love and anger is more than just Jesus being both divine and human and experiencing the full range of human nature. It's because God Himself will not fit in a neat box: He is not limited to the emotions of love, or anger, or to the reactions we expect of love or anger. God expresses the whole range of human emotions and goes beyond it. And He takes on Himself the need to judge, and furthermore, sent his Son to eliminate the need for punishment, for all who are willing to believe and to take up their crosses. Righteous anger can feel good: there are important norms in the world, and when people violate them, it's easy to get angry. But we're not God, and we don't teach with the authority of Jesus, and even if we emulate His behavior and try to adopt His beliefs, we can't have the absolute certainty that Jesus had. God created a world where all people can choose to turn to Him. That's why "... I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." So righteous anger, while it can seem justified, is something we really don't need. It's not to say we shouldn't make ethical or moral judgments, but when things really go awry, it's okay to turn the other cheek, to remember to love our enemies, and if all else fails, shake the dust off our feet and move on. -the Centaur Pictured: Fred Rogers.
Posts published in “Religion”
There’s this guy Jesus …
Jesus once said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven - and while it's impossible for man, it's possible for God. Jesus wasn't telling us to become poor per se, but warning against attachment to things, and reminding us we need God's help. The Kingdom of Heaven has at least two meanings in Christian thought: literal heaven, of course, but also, following the ways of Jesus here on Earth. Things aren't important to God: He can make as much stuff as He wants. But each person is unique. God cares, and Jesus asks us to care for each other. Worrying about making sure we have enough stuff is practically important, and Jesus doesn't ask us to forget about it: in the Parable of the Talents, He suggests that we need to take care of the resources that we are given, and that those who invest their talents wisely will be rewarded many times over. But for every verse which praises responsibility, three exhort us not to worry about possessions. When a young rich man asked what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said: "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Perhaps following was more literal during Jesus's ministry, but many verses in the Gospels take a similar tack: "Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles strive after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them." Jesus is doing more than just telling us not to worry. The Parable of the Rich Fool portrays a man who builds bigger storehouses to hold all his wealth, only for God to say to him: "You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?" This story isn't about God being a jerk to a rich guy: it's about the very real possibility that we won't live to take advantage of what we've saved up for tomorrow - and questioning our priorities. The Rich Fool's wealth was grain, stored in warehouses - and rather than share it, the man built bigger storehouses. I feel the man's pain - I've worked a number of years to try to provide for I and my wife's retirement, and we ended up buying a bigger house to better house my vast library and her equally bulky art studio. But is that the best use of our wealth? What would happen to all this if something were to happen to me? There's a story about the house in which I'm writing this blogpost: supposedly, the man who owned it died just three years after renovating it - on the back porch added during the renovation, I might add. A good friend tells a similar story about his father, who fell ill before he could ever enjoy retirement. Our wealth is transient - and provided by God. A friend told a story once about getting a surprise bonus - I don't recall the precise story, but let's say he found a twenty. He gave the twenty away in the collection plate, and ended up getting forty bucks from someone who remembered they owed him something. He donated the forty, and got eighty or a hundred bucks in a gift card. He continued giving away this windfall over and over again, and the rough doubling continued, until finally at several hundred dollars, he said, "Alright, God, I get the point - I don't need any more." Similarly, I can confidently say that I've "earned" far more money from following my Christian values and treating people the way that I wish I was treated than I've ever earned from just hard work. Putting your nose to the grindstone sometimes just throws sparks; treating people with respect wins you far more. Jesus sent His disciples out with minimal provisions. Now, He could have provided them with mana from heaven - paraphrasing Dennis Leary, God has the budget - but He sent them out as mendicants, living off the largesse of the people they preached to - because the Kingdom of Heaven is also here on Earth. For each story in which Jesus exhorts us not to worry about possessions, there's another about us taking care of each other - and not just the overt "give to all those who beg of you"; the feature implicit in the story of the Rich Fool is that he is not sharing his abundance - and yet, he should. This goes back to Leviticus: "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest." Many passages in the New and Old Testament teach us our society should not be structured to maximize exploitation, but to leave space at the margins. Jesus spoke in parable, hyperbole and metaphor. When Jesus says to forgive someone not seven times, but seventy times seven times, He doesn't mean 490 times: He means to forgive endlessly. Similarly, when Jesus says "give to all those who beg from you," this is a general principle, not a strict rule. Once, a Christian girl I dated - named Christian, interestingly - and I were waiting for a table for dinner when a thin, trembling woman in a knitted cap came up and asked us for money. Even before I could speak, Christian politely but firmly gave her directions to the nearest shelter, just a few blocks away. The woman left, and just as she did, the server ran out to us. "Did you give her any money? No? Good. She's a recovering heroin addict with an assigned social worker. Please don't give her anything. What she really needs is not to get any money." Christian's take on this was, "Jesus is not an enabler." In trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to life here on Earth, we are bound to make mistakes. Trying to use our talents wisely can distract us from the needs of others. Creating the standard where we give to everyone without discretion can lead to people taking advantage of the system to their own detriment. But that doesn't mean we can't try. If you're down on your luck, of course, maybe you don't have anything to give - but that just means God appreciates what you do even more than someone who has it all. And if you have it all, it's worth asking ... do you really need all that, or can you pass some of that forward? -the Centaur Pictured: Gandhi.
I disagree with traditional religion about a lot, and I try to be up front about it. Contra Catholicism, I teach that women should be ordained priests and homosexuality is not a sin; contra fundamentalism, I teach the Bible is not literally true, but that the transubstantiation of the Eucharist is spiritually true. But since we're all inspired by the same one God, and since we're all trying to follow Jesus, then in some sense, no matter where we are on our faith journeys, we're all trying to look in the same direction. So if you extend Christian charity to your Christian opponents, you can usually find a nugget of truth. While I disagree with the Catholic Church's teaching on women priests and gay relationships, that is their consistent teaching and has some Biblical basis, so it's right to say the Catholic Church can't simply toss those rules out to match current social mores without developing a more mature understanding. This seems disappointing if you're a proponent of women priests or respecting individual sexuality, but unless decisions are made on principles that we can defend, then the Church can be swayed back and forth by any social movement, even a recidivist one that rolls the clock backward. Similarly, while I disagree with fundamentalists who see the Bible as literally true - and in fact think that the way traditional "Bible-believing" Christians view the Bible approaches idolatry - nevertheless, I agree we must return to the Bible to understand Jesus because the Bible is our sole primary source. On that note, I've got theological differences with Jehovah's Witnesses - for example, they reject the Trinity and Jesus's divinity in favor of their own decontextualized interpretation of the Bible that doesn't build on the traditions and theology passed on to us from Jesus through His Church. My sister-in-law is a Witness, and we've had many vigorous discussions over points of theology and even whether to call it theology or philosophy. But when I attended the wedding of her son, they mentioned Jesus and pulled out their Bibles far more often than other churches. The Holy Spirit was moving with them: Jehovah's Witnesses do not deny the Spirit's influence, even though they do deny the Spirit's divinity or its unity with God as one Person of the Trinity. Wherever two or three are together, Jesus is there with them; and He was there, helping them to follow Him. It's good for Christians to talk to one another, even if they disagree on doctrine. Once Jesus said that He came not to unite but divide, as part of his mission to set the world on fire with His teaching. His speech references Micah, an Old Testament book decrying dishonesty, even within households. Both the author of Micah and Jesus aren't asking us to fight with each other, but to be honest with each other and ourselves. Micah asks us for God's help to get back on the right path. Jesus turns to us and asks us, why we can't decide what is right amongst ourselves? Explicitly, He was speaking about believers solving problems between each other without turning to a judge, but the broader message for the rest of us is that we should talk through our problems with each other, even if we disagree, trying to focus on what is right using honest reasoning with each other. Christians should engage with each other, even if we disagree, and attempt to find out what's right. It was in one of those conversations with a friend in high school, a fundamentalist, that I first heard the phrase that's the title of this article: "Sometimes it seems that nothing man can do is just enough." We were discussing the death penalty. While I was a Catholic at the time, and was representing the Church's teaching against capital punishment, even at the time in that conversation, I wasn't certain I agreed with it. My friend was in favor of capital punishment, but wasn't too happy with it either. "You know, if you do nothing, then a criminal who killed someone gets away without punishment. Life in prison is like torturing them for the rest of their life. Killing them seems just for the victims, but it means that our society has taken a life. Sometimes it seems that nothing man can do is just enough." My friend was arguing that humans don't need to be in the business of judging each other in this life. We can forgive each other and move on, confident that God will judge everyone at the Last Judgment, and that his decision will be the correct and just one. This doesn't mean that our society shouldn't have a policy for dealing with people who hurt other people, but it does mean we'll fall short. While this idea is qualitative, it's like a theorem like the Halting Problem: no matter what we try to do, humankind isn't going to get the problem of justice perfectly right. This strongly argues for forgiveness on a personal level. When my Uncle Sam was murdered by gunshot by (as I recall) an employee he'd caught embezzling, I had a lot of emotions: Sam had been one of my favorite relatives, a kindly old man who did a lot for Saint Mary's Church, who was now gone. But it's important to forgive. Perhaps it was easier for me to forgive his killer given that I had already left for college and hadn't seen him in a while, but still, people have become enraged over far simpler things and held onto them for far longer. Better to let it go. And when I do feel it difficult to forgive, when thoughts of vengeance consume me, I remember what my friend said: "Sometimes it seems that nothing that man can do is just enough." And if I remember that no human action will be enough, that can help me turn the other cheek, and get back to following Jesus. -the Centaur Pictured: My friend from high school, who moved north and apparently followed his father's footsteps, becoming an architect.
Welp, I forgot to treat the Sabbath like the Sabbath yesterday, even though I attended a church meeting with the bishop, and ended up doing a full essay and illustration instead. So, I'm going to call a mulligan on today's entry and take it as a retroactive Sabbath, to give myself that bit of extra rest - because the Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around. -the Centaur Pictured: As quick as an illustration in Illustrator + Photoshop as I could manage.
Jesus is the focus of the Episcopal Church, so why not call us just Christian? Well, with a lot of Christian churches, we need qualifiers, usually theological: the Catholic Church is catholic, for all; the Presbyterian Church is governed by elders, or presbyters; and the Episcopal Church follows the Anglican tradition. Wait, what? Well, Anglican is just a funny word for English, taken from a Latin phrase in the Magna Carta meaning The Church of England. But after the American Revolution, we wanted a church that retained the theology we believed in, but was independent from England, leading to the Episcopal Church. Anglicanism has three key features. The most important theologically is the "three-legged stool" principle: the idea that decisions about the faith must be discerned using the three sources of Scripture (the Bible), Tradition (history and decisions of the Church) and Reason (an honest inquiry into the actual facts). The most important pastorally is the Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican Church united Protestants ("low church", light on ritual) and ex-Catholics ("high church", very sacramental) using worship from the same book. You don't have to agree on doctrine if you can agree to pray together out of the same book. The most important spiritually is the Apostolic Succession. When lay people think of bishops, we typically think of big league church people with funny hats - like Vice Presidents in Charge of Worship in Religion Incorporated. But bishops have their origin in Jesus's time: they're the successors of the Apostles. Jesus picked twelve Apostles to fulfill his mission, and handpicked Peter to lead the Church after He was gone. But almost immediately after Jesus's death, the Apostles lost one of their own to betrayal: Judas. Saint Matthias was the first new Apostle, picked to fill Judas's role in the leadership of the Church. This process continued with Paul, who was selected to be the Apostle to the Gentiles by Jesus himself during his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and Barnabas, Paul's apprentice. After Paul and Barnabas, the term apostle starts to get fuzzy, starting to evolve into the term overseer, or bishop. Bishops, as I mentioned earlier in the series, were intended to be upstanding: "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous ..." This was important because bishops guided the Church. Since the Church lived under the Roman Empire, the Bishop of Rome was centrally important. Three early Church leaders - Peter, Linus and Clement - are mentioned in the Bible, and early Church tradition names them as Bishops of Rome. Which, of course, we now call the Pope. From a historical perspective - that is, what we can justify based on written documents - the evidence for the early Popes is a bit thin, but from a realistic, scientific perspective - that is, making a best guess based on the evidence - they very probably existed. Peter may have written at least one letter which is genuine; Clement also wrote a letter which is very likely genuine. Linus left us nothing, but as early as the mid-100's, Saint Irenaeus's writings identified Linus as the first Bishop of Rome. Irenaeus, who also helped us define the early books of the Bible, was a bishop himself, so it's likely he knew what he was talking about. Sometimes skeptical people get confused about this, so it's important to distinguish between what we can historically and scientifically prove and what is actually true. There are oak trees on the grounds of Saint Stephens in-the-Field, the Episcopal Church I attend in San Jose. Some are clearly very old, but others are newer. To my knowledge, there is no written record of how those trees got planted on the property. But if you attend the Saint Stephen's Vestry meetings or coffee hours, you may hear the story of how Dan, one of the founding members of the parish. He and his wife had a very prolific oak tree, and for years they sowed the property with acorns, eventually leading to the trees we have decades later. I heard this story from Dan himself in a Zoom "coffee hour" celebrating the "visit" of our bishop, Lucinda. After a few more decades, Dan may likely be gone, but the people who attended that Zoom meeting can continue to tell that story, until the oral tradition that "Dan planted the trees" one day finally disintegrates. If, fifty years from now, someone connects the dots and says that "Dan the Acorn Man" is likely "Dan Name Withheld for Privacy" among the Church founders and writes it down, that statement isn't wrong just because it wasn't documented in primary source materials contemporary to the event. We have to be aware that oral traditions are tentative, but that doesn't mean oral traditions aren't real. Scientists not engaged in active religious skepticism are comfortable suggesting that a 37,000 year old volcanic eruption is preserved in oral tradition, so we can trust a very early bishop to get the story right. What's the point here? There almost certainly weren't monarchial bishops in Rome on the mold of the current Popes, but what we can say is that there are a number of Apostles mentioned in the Bible - some in letters we believe to be authentic - who anointed bishops, who anointed other bishops, and so on. This process continued, and by a very early stage, bishops anointing bishops became formalized. By the time the Episcopal Church rolled around, each bishop is consecrated by three other bishops. The rationale behind this is even if one bishop isn't valid, the action of the others is likely to be. This unbroken chain - from the bishops of today, through the early church bishops, to the Apostles being called by Jesus Himself - is called the Apostolic Succession. Churches governed by bishops believe this "episcopate" spiritually inherits the authority Jesus invested in Peter and the Apostles. Because the Christian Church isn't a self-help scheme that's good for you, or an ethical teaching which is good for other people. Christians believe our faith is a true deposit of revealed information about the world, prompted by the actions of Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit. And if the important part of that teaching is to learn about, to come to believe in, and to choose to follow Jesus, it's important to know that the people overseeing the organization which teaches us about Him aren't simply spiritually inspired by a 2,000 year old compilation of books and letters. The contemporary Christian Church is literally the same organization that Jesus founded. Our leaders, the bishops, are the successors of His Apostles. Our religious texts, the Bible, was written and collated and curated by the group of people Jesus entrusted to lead His Church - them, and their successors. If you want to follow Jesus, you can't do much better than read the Bible that His followers and their successors assembled, to attend worship at one of the churches He founded, and to inquire what the leaders of those churches think about what it means to follow Him. -the Centaur Pictured: Lucinda Ashby, Bishop of El Camino Real.
"Jesus is the reason for the season goes" the saying, and getting to know Jesus is the purpose of this Lenten series - and Lent itself is a tool to remind us of Jesus, to reacquaint us with His story, to help us reconsider our lives - dare I say repent - and to choose to follow His path to the Cross. There's a lot to Christianity, and a lot that people who are into Christianity argue about. And so I've been talking a lot of theology, philosophy, history, science and more; but all that can be overwhelming if you're unfamiliar with it - heck, it can be overwhelming if you ARE familiar with it. So how can you get started with Christianity? First off, Jesus saves if you believe in him; so learning about Jesus is a start on the right path. Next, find a Christian church whose creed speaks to you: this list is by church size, so the search [church near me] is likely to find one; I recommend you go to an [episcopal church near me] on the next available Sunday. Why? Well, these are the first three theological steps on the road to becoming a Christian. First is awareness: you need to know about Jesus first. Second is belief: it's not enough just to know him, but to believe in him. And third is worship - but not just individually; communal worship, worship with others. This is really important. Jesus didn't just preach on a mountaintop, though He certainly did that. He gathered apostles and sent out disciples who built communities. He once said "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them," which is why many believe it's important to worship together. If you're learning about Jesus, and you're gathering with others trying to learn about Jesus, then the Holy Spirit can guide you the right way. I recommend a church you're comfortable with to reduce distractions like disagreements over doctrine, but I also recommend a Christian church focused on Jesus. "Look, Centaur, can you actually just tell me how to get started without opening my phone book?" "What, you guys still use phone books?" Oh, nevermind - if you want me to summarize, sure, hey, I can do that. I've already told you the three most important practical steps. Now, epistemological, or, what's up? Surely you've felt at some point a presence larger than yourself, be it the simple recognition that the room or outdoor place that you're in is bigger than you are, or be it a deep internal experience, hard to quantify, of something to the world that's more than what you see and feel. To Christians, this realization is the first step on the path to realize we exist in a Creation made by God. We don't mean this in the sense of a scientific explanation, as you have to take it on faith; but we do mean it as a fact: you live in a world where God has to exist, and is the only thing that has to exist. God is the "ground of being," the logical foundation of existence, and everything else - including you - is something contingent upon God - something He created - a part of "Creation," which God designed to fulfill His purpose. So the fact is, if you want to do well in the world, you should be aligned with His will. Now, we suck at that. Traditional Christians chalk this up to the Fall of Adam and Original Sin; I think it's a inevitable consequence of God wanting us to choose Him freely, given the limitations of finite agents acting as partially ordered Markov decision processes. But, tl;dr: we depart from his will. We sin. Traditional Christians think God is infinitely good, and created an just universe; and in a just universe, sin needs to be punished - departing from God's will should have an inevitable consequence. But it sucks to blame limited finite creatures for failing to follow the perfect designs of an infinite unlimited God. So it seems like God put Himself in a bind. Greek philosopher Epicurius argued if God is good then evil should not exist, but Christian theology inverts this: arguing about a mythical disembodied "evil" diverts attention from our personal role creating evil through sin, which logically a good God should punish. Fortunately, God gave Himself an out: Jesus. God, in Christian theology, is one singular "being" existing out of and prior to time and space. But God exists, or is perceived by human beings to exist, in the form of three persons: Father, Son, Holy Ghost, sometimes said: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. In abstract terms, the Creator made the world, but it could not be made perfect just by a sterile act of creation. The Redeemer fixed the flaws of the world by acting in it to perfect it, and the Sanctifier continues to act in the world to bring people closer to the Creator through the Redeemer. In concrete terms, God the Father may have made the universe and us, but either we screwed it up or free will requires it to be screwable. To un-screw it, God the Son came to Earth as a human being, providing an example and taking on our punishment, sending the God the Spirit to guide us after. In religious terms, Jesus is both divine and human - He's the incarnation of God trying to fix the world and take responsibility for our punishments. Jesus not only provided us instructions on how to live in life, and a concrete example of how to live through His life, He took on our punishment on the Cross. Theologians call this the "superabundant merits" of Jesus's unjust crucifixion: the extralegal, unjust, torturous execution of an innocent man who was actually on a mission from God was not just enough to wipe out the sins of the world, but to wipe out the sins of everyone for all time. But in practical terms, it means Jesus, acting on behalf of - acting as - God, took on responsibility for the punishment that we might be owed for any sins we committed by not following His will, and further, took on the responsibility of showing us an example of a good life and teaching us how to live that life. After Jesus returned to the Father, He sent the Holy Spirit - He sent another aspect of Himself - to help guide us. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit woke up Jesus's apostles, turning them from scared followers hiding after the gruesome execution of their leader into bold preachers of His word, unafraid of death. That transformation is available to all of us. Learn more about Jesus, attend worship at the Christian church of your choice, read a translation of the Bible you understand - I recommend the Oxford Annotated Bible and the Interlinear, but there's also The Message in contemporary language. But the Bible is long. The short version is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" and John 13:34: "I am giving a new commandment to you now—love each other just as much as I love you." Pull on those threads, take a look at the Lord's Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and the Sermon on the Mount, and remember you must combine all three legs of the stool - Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, all of which have equal roles to play building our understanding - and you're well on your way. Or, put another way, try to follow Jesus. -the Centaur Pictured: Allegedly, Epicurus.
Jesus frequently calls on His listeners to repent - to stop what they're doing, to undergo a change of heart, and to choose to do things that are better. But He also frequently exhorts His listeners to "Be Not Afraid", because He's there to help us follow Him: "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." That yoke doesn't feel so light if one is struggling with sins of addiction, or challenged by discrepancies between the traditional social mores expressed in the Bible and the truth of personal lived experience, or if one grows up in an environment that twists traditional Christianity into profound repression. I have a close friend who struggled for years with post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the stories told in his extreme Christian community - that salvation depended on a transformative "come to Jesus" moment which he had not yet had, and the Rapture was likely to happen at any moment. Every time he came home from school and his parents were out at the store, he wondered whether the Rapture had happened and he'd been left behind. Well, the Rapture didn't happen, and isn't going to happen, because it's both bad cosmology and bad theology, but that was no help for my friend. He couldn't talk to anyone about his feelings because his Christian group essentially held that people were saved, or not, and the people who were saved were predestined to be saved, and those who weren't, weren't - so if you didn't have your special mystical experience, you were a bad person. Now theology is important - whether the person in question is a Christian or an atheist, it's at first sight hard to blame them for acting on what they believe. But, as my friend put it, imagine telling slaves brought to America that their abuse was OK because their abusers thought it was right. It's a bit much to compare being raised within a repressive group and slavery: that fails to respect the real experiences of people who endure slavery, which is worse. But, the point is, in the end, we can't give people a walk on carrying out their sincere beliefs if those beliefs end up hurting other people. That's why I try to follow Jesus's example of examining each situation anew, looking at how individual human beings are affected by the concrete actions being done in that situation. When we're trying to decide what we should do, it can be tricky; when we try to decide for others, we can lose perspective. That's why I believe that self-righteousness is one of the most dangerous sins. Morals are important, of course, and we can't get away from the fact that if we believe Christianity to be real, that God's will is important, and that sins that depart from God's will should be avoided, then we must teach morals. But teaching morals is one thing, and forcing morals on people around us is another, much less taking on the responsibility to enforce morals on a whole population. Enforcing morals with laws requires violence, and enforcing them at a social level leads to repression - and victimization, like that of my friend. That's one reason Jesus suggested that his disciples shake the dust off their shoes if a town fail to listen to their message - rather than suggesting that his disciples call down fire from the sky as at Sodom and Gomorrah. Presumably God has the budget for that, but would fail to respect the people who are there. When all filled with righteous indignation - let's say for ark of saguement, legitimately righteous - over something that someone has done wrong, when considering our response, we should ask: is the response I'm considering itself doing harm to this person? It's all too easy to fire off insult to insult, tweet to tweet, snarky email to snarky email. It's all too easy to propose that people whose behavior we approve of be punished. And we can't get away from punishment of misbehavior if we want a stable society. But are we doing more harm than good? Worse, are we forgetting that Jesus wasn't just asking us to reconsider our sins, but our lives? Jesus doesn't just preach repentance, fearlessness and a new way of thinking. He doesn't just rework old rule-bound approaches to morality in favor of an analytical, reductionist, person-centered approach. He also preaches a gospel of radical kindness and support for each other. He preaches it in "love your neighbor as yourself". He preaches this in "turn the other cheek". He preaches it in "give to all those who beg of you" and in the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes, which bless the poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers. Jesus is making an argument for human goodness. Christians think of God as infinitely good - a troubling statement in the presence of evil, though we can chalk it up to praise for argument, a kind of performative Christian loyalty to God, in which believers commit to saying good things about Him in all circumstances. Constructivist mathematics provides us an out here. Do infinities exist? Well, maybe, maybe not, but we certainly can't put infinity in our pockets. But we can conceive of a series whose elements always has a successor. There's always tomorrow after today. After every number, there's that number plus one. And no matter where we are on our journey towards God, we can always get one step closer. So, in some sense, there's infinite room for us to improve our behavior. So even if we are actually not committing any sin, there must be ways that we can improve - by trying to make the world better. Focusing on avoidance of sin as the core meaning of Christianity misses both its point and potential, and leads to self-righteousness in perfecting our own behavior and controlling the behavior of others; but Jesus calls upon us to do more: to love one another, to comfort the sick, to feed the hungry, to do good. -the Centaur Pictured: David Hilbert, whose finitism is a form of constructive mathematics, a formalist program which Kurt Godel ultimately proved impossible with his Incompleteness Theorem.
Sometimes we can learn to do good by carefully considering its opposite. That's what C. S. Lewis does in The Screwtape Letters, a fiendishly clever little book in which an older demon advises a younger demon on how to damn a soul. Never stated to the reader: hey guys, you should, um, do the opposite. One of the techniques that the older demon recommends is suggesting that a temptation will go away if the client gives in to it. You don't need to be a Christian theologian to recognize this is bunk, but it helps to know that behaviorist psychology has discovered a behavior that leads to a reward will be reinforced. Well, this a problem, since the reward is produced by the behavior you're trying to extinguish, and so by the time you've done the behavior, it's too late to avoid the reward: the quick smoke, the second donut, that one more YouTube video when it's already time for bed. But this is where the Christian concept of the "near occasion of sin". As fellow comic book artist Nathan Vargas once put it when we were getting coffee, people think they make decisions by themselves, but they don't: there were ten decisions that led to you standing here in that line, about to buy a mocha. In the same way, ten steps lead to any given sin: driving to the convenience store to get a smoke, eating the first donut, opening the browser tab instead of closing the laptop. When the next video from Local 58 is sitting right there, man, in your queue, it's hard to resist; it's a lot easier if YouTube isn't even open. If you really want to not do something, you should not do it: while a failure to yield a reward will at first lead to a flurry of behaviors that potentially lead to the reward - driving past the convenience store, looking longingly at the donuts, opening YouTube - eventually those behaviors will become extinct. As comic satirist and idiosyncratic religious scholar Dave Sim once said - edited for language, Dave is not PG-13 - if you leave it alone, it will leave you alone. This is easier if the behavior is altogether bad - for example, if you've decided to quit smoking because it's addictive - so you can stop entirely. But the donut or the YouTube video, now, that's a pickle. You can choose intellectually dishonesty and claim that the donut or the YouTube video is always bad, but that's the evil path towards Puritanism. Sins like theft are always wrong, but sins like gluttony aren't caused by eating per se, but eating too much. So what can we do with sins of excess and similar behaviors that aren't always wrong? Another vaguely Christian concept to consider is the wages of sin. If ten acts lead up to any one choice, ten reactions will follow it. Considering the consequences of our choices can help us understand and control them. Many Christian thinkers see sin as choosing our will over God's. But if God's is good, then God's will is what's good for us - the concept we've discussed a few times before, that things are not good because they are in the law, but they are in the law because they are good. So if that's true, bad behaviors are likely to lead to bad outcomes. For me, the matter is pretty clear with the second donut: it won't taste as good as the first, and it adds to your indigestion and waistline. Similarly with the YouTube video: the later it gets, the more tired I am the next day. For things we have less experience with, it's harder to make this judgment call. Another friend put it this way: "When faced with these choices, I don't think about how good it will feel when I am doing it. I try to think about how I will feel when it's over." God's will isn't about arbitrary laws which are difficult for people to follow. It's about choosing things that are good for us and the people around us, and avoiding things that are harmful to us and others. My mother put it this way once: "Don't do anything to hurt yourself." That's hard to judge in the moment, but if a sequence of actions leads you to unavoidable regret, it's worth considering: is this God's will? If that's too hard - and it often is - just ask yourself: "How will I feel about this when it is all over?" -the Centaur Pictured: my mother, Susan Francis.
Pride. One of the "Seven Deadly Sins." Overweening confidence in one's accomplishments. Sooner or later, if you study Christian thought, you'll come across the idea that pride is one of the worst sins that you can fall into. I'd put self-righteousness over that, but, hey, the two go together. Another common idea in Christian thought is the difference between Christian values - "the Kingdom" - and values in our society - "the World". We encounter this every year when Christians engage in performative lying about "the War on Christmas" every time someone says "Happy Holidays." But the difference in the Kingdom and the World is important, even though hyped-up Christians imagine differences which are not there - for example, some say "Happy Holidays" just to change it up, or say "Holiday Party" because (a) the office party isn't on Christmas and (b) people of other faiths attend. The difference is important because our society, while it might be a vast, distributed artificial intelligence of sorts, itself isn't a rational agent which follows God's will. That's up to us, as individual humans, and as we've talked about earlier in this series, us finite beings are always prone to messing it up. So we're constantly called to rise above what our society does by default - to turn away from the values of the World, which develop through their own inertia - and to consciously choose to follow Jesus, exhibiting the kind of values He would exhibit if He were here among us. On that note, one might imagine that Jesus wouldn't have been too wound up over whether the office end-of-year celebration was called a Christmas Party or a Holiday Party, but He might take offense at stripping Christ out of a personal Christmas Party, or - "You're celebrating my birthday in December?" Another difference between the Kingdom and the World is the focus on self-actualization and pride in one's accomplishments. A lot of Christianity depends on overcoming our own worst impulses, which seems precisely opposite to our modern culture's increasing focus on self-acceptance. These are not as incompatible as they seem. The world has engaged in spectacular, mind-numbing repression on a vast scale - most noticeable in totalitarian cultures, where even the language gets edited to reflect political authority - but down to the massive but almost invisible conformity forced upon us. One of the arguments in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is "You don't raise a guy to a responsible job who whistles in the elevator!", with one character getting fired over it. I and my father, a generation and a half apart, argued over this, and he said he'd reprimand a man who did that. My father was a great man, and he built a great business, but I'm working in a great business too, and it's filled with responsible people doing excellent jobs who've named themselves after flowers, and once I saw a very serious presentation by a very serious person wearing a Pokemon onesie. I could go on a riff here about how we've moved past the strict IBM business culture of the 1950's and discovered that most of those surface features don't matter for doing excellent work - they were holdovers from the Victorian era, perpetuated by anal-retentive power freaks. And I'd be right. But something has entered here, subtly, trying not to get noticed: pride. Because being right about the job part misses the real point to be made: Whether someone should get reprimanded or not, whistling in an elevator makes a lot of noise in an enclosed space. It's arguably rude and shows little self-control. But it's hard to be open to that point if you're only seeing your own side of the argument, which may be correct, but not complete. Recently, in a virtual meeting where I'm sure at least one person was wearing a funny hat, we had an argument over whether we should support one or two pieces of software. A very senior executive argued we should push for one; I argued to keep two (or more broadly, as many as were needed). But the executive didn't stomp on my point; in the chat for the meeting, they pointed out they agreed for that particular topic, and outlined circumstances why we might choose either path. They even used math to justify the argument - one of my arguments, simplex math, the notion that software complexity is the square of the size of the product, so if you can support two simple things, that can sometimes be cheaper than supporting one over-complex thing that tries to do it all. We both learned something in that meeting, because we were both open to hear it. But if either of us had been caught up in the pride of our points, that understanding would not have been possible. And the executive would have won by default, since he'd accomplished way more than me. Some Christians take it that all pride is bad. Sometimes it even gets capitalized, like Pride, and gets a corner office. That's useful: I distinguish between the English word "pride" - being rightfully happy we accomplished something - from Pride, in the sense of excess egotism about ourselves. C. S. Lewis once said that if a Christian was the best in the world at something, he should honestly and sincerely acknowledge it - and then forget about it, as he moves on to the work to be done for the day. And that part of the Christian journey is constantly tamping down these self-aggrandizing impulses. I think Pride does more than lead us down the wrong path. It leads us into a state of self-absorption, where we are so convinced of our own accomplishments - and maybe we have some - and of our own rightness - and maybe we are - that we can't see the accomplishments or rightness of others. Christians say God is infinitely good. Constructivist mathematicians say there's really no such thing as "infinite", only series which expand without limit. There's no infinite number, just a number one larger than any number choose. In the same way, no matter how good we are, there's always a way to improve. Pride isn't just placing our will over God's. Pride internalizes our accomplishments and so aggrandizes our selves. Furthermore, it's a particularly hard sin to overcome as that self-aggrandizement serves as a blinder to information that might contradict that inflated self-assessment. Pride isn't just a sin. It's a distraction from turning towards the right path. Fortunately, Jesus is always there for us to follow. -the Centaur Pictured: Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman.
One of the things I find about Christian media is that even a bad essay, story or movie is likely to have a kernel of truth in it. Not that Christian media can't be badly done or bad theology - far from it - but it's almost like, perhaps, the inspiration of the truth is likely to shine through into the text. People who publish Christian literature encounter this all the time: many people who submit their writing feel that it is divinely inspired, down to the last word and letter, but the truth is, whether the authors are inspired or not, their texts are often filled with typos and bad grammar, or simply need development. But there's still likely to be good stuff in there. In an earlier essay I mentioned The Last Temptation of Christ, which does a better job of anything I've seen of humanizing the struggle of Jesus, who was both divine and man. And that includes The Passion, described by Pope John Paul II as "it is as it was." But The Last Temptation also has the character of Jesus uttering his "break the cycle of evil" speech to Judas, which is the best justification for "turn the other cheek" that I've seen, as well as a revisionist interpretation of Judas as the super-apostle whose betrayal of Jesus helped fulfill Jesus's mission. That interpretation certainly isn't biblical, but in the context of the story, having two characters on opposite poles - Jesus, the uncertain Messiah, Judas, the certain Zealot - enabled the filmmakers to explore the heart of Jesus's teachings and his sacrifice in a very personal way. Another example is The Passion, which feels like a live re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross. But knowing that the hand shown hammering the nails into Jesus's flesh is Mel Gibson's hand, the director, intended as a stand-in for all of us, reminds us of the purpose of Jesus's sacrifice for our sins. Another such movie is Prince Caspian. I prefer The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a movie, but even though I liked it, the betrayal, sacrifice and resurrection depicted in that book or movie always struck me as a bit forced - C. S. Lewis being a bit too blatant about the allegory he wanted to convey. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, has a similar flaw when one character says "Things never happen the same way twice," which might be news to the author of Ecclesiastes 1:9: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." That was a transparent excuse for C. S. Lewis to write himself out of the plot hole where he'd created the same setup for a battle as the previous book but wanted it to be resolved a different way. From a craft perspective, the correct approach is to re-arrange the book's events to create a different climax. But despite these flaws, the movie - I don't remember if this is in the book - has the brilliant line, "Exactly who are you doing this for, Peter?" when Peter makes a bad choice out of self-aggrandizement. Again, I felt like this was heavy handed - but it made an important point. In Christian theology, God created the universe; God is infinitely good; and ultimately doing God's will, not our own, is the difference between doing good and falling into sin. Doing God's will doesn't mean you can't go get a drink of water when you're thirsty, but it does mean you need to think about your purpose. We take on many projects in our lives - for me, building a robotic navigation stack, or working on a 21-book novel series, or completing a webcomic - or working on a Lenten series explaining my theology in terms that might possibly make sense to other human beings who don't live inside my head. But these things are not God's will by themselves. Not that they can't be consistent with God's will - I use projects that have a religious nature, be it service on the church Vestry, writing a Lenten series, or writing books religious characters - as a way to expose me to and hopefully draw me to God. But consistent with is not equal to. Take the Dakota Frost, Skindancer novel series, on the surface about a magical tattooist, but also about a Christian in a world of monsters and magic. I've learned a lot from the situations I put Dakota through, and developed my own ideas of radical forgiveness from that. But finishing those 21 books - I've got 3 published, and 4 more written, with drafts going far out - is just a temporal task in this world. Even if it is a good work, that's not going to get you into heaven, and if you're doing a good work for a wrong reason, it will rapidly go bad on its own. So "Who are you doing this for?" is a key question we should ask ourselves. Are the things we have committed to things that we're committed to for the right reasons? Because, no matter how far down the path we have gone, if it is the wrong path, Jesus will be waiting there to show us the right way. -the Centaur Pictured: A random centaur, because there are centaurs in Narnia.